Tiger and bear rescue highlights the woes of Thailand’s captive wildlife tourism
- After two years of closed borders and low tourism revenue, many captive wildlife facilities around the world are struggling.
- Phuket Zoo in Thailand recently closed for good, but relocating its 11 tigers and two bears proved a challenge.
- A local non-profit organization, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, stepped in to undertake the largest tiger rescue in the country’s history and has so far transferred one female tiger to its rescue centre.
- Animal welfare experts say the situation highlights the dangers of an overreliance on tourism and are calling on the government to better control breeding animals in captivity.
The future of Phuket Zoo was uncertain long before the COVID-19 pandemic closed Thailand’s borders to foreign tourists. Animal rights activists had frequently raised concerns about conditions at the facility and visitor numbers were dwindling. Today, after two years of near-zero revenue, the zoo has closed its doors for good.
Most of the captive animals were relocated to nearby wildlife parks, but the zoo’s 11 tigers and two bears (an Asiatic black bear and a Sun bear) proved more difficult to relocate. The cost of feeding and caring for large mammals is prohibitive for wildlife sites across the country, all of which are struggling to feed their own animals following the loss of tourist revenue.
Seeking a solution, the zoo owners turned to Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), a non-profit animal rescue center eight hours drive north of Phuket in Phetchaburi. Although the WFFT has campaigned against the practices at Phuket Zoo in the past, the organization has agreed to welcome all unhoused animals into its wildlife sanctuary, in what will be the largest tiger rescue in history. from Thailand.
Not a lasting solution
Unlike their native forests, the captive tigers and bears lived in small concrete enclosures at the zoo where onlookers reported them tied by short chains to photography rigs for hours, forced to pose for selfies tourist.
Animal welfare experts say their plight is just one example of the risks to animals in the captive wildlife tourism industry, not just in Thailand, but around the world.
“Commercial facilities that have wild animals that depend on income from visitors are all in economic trouble and are closing left and right,” World Animal Protection‘s Jan Schmidt-Burbach told Mongabay. “Those who really suffer from it are the animals [and] in many cases there is no place to go.
While the rescue of Phuket Zoo’s tigers and bears at a reputable sanctuary is welcome news, Schmidt-Burbach said wildlife rescue cannot be seen as a solution to the captive facility’s overreliance on wildlife. -from tourism revenues. The problem is rife in Thailand, where more than 50 facilities across the country house more than 2,000 tigers, and around 2,700 elephants are kept in tourist “camps”. The lives of all these animals have been threatened over the past two years.
“Sanctuaries can take care of a select group of animals, but if we are talking about 2,000 tigers in Thailand, for example, there is no sanctuary that can take [that many]said Schmidt-Burbach.
Launch of a historic rescue
Established in 2001, the WFFT rescue center covers 80 hectares (nearly 200 acres) and is home to around 700 animals, including 30 bears, several dozen elephants and six species of gibbons, as well as macaques, lorises, langurs, wild cats, otters, birds and reptiles. Most animals have been confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade, pet industry, and tourism and entertainment industry, and those that can be rehabilitated will be returned to the wild.
The center has received numerous requests for help from struggling wildlife sites over the past two years, but WFFT itself has also been impacted by the pandemic as much of its funding comes from volunteer tourism. “We try to help as much as we can,” said WFFT director Edwin Wiek, “the fact is, however, that without financial support we cannot help more.”
The organization has raised funds in recent months to sponsor the construction of new wildlife enclosures to house rescued tigers and bears. Today, the new facilities are nearing completion. There are three large outdoor enclosures for the tigers, each with smaller conjoined areas for monitoring and health checks. The largest tiger enclosure is approximately 2 hectares (5 acres) and all are designed to replicate as natural an environment as possible. There are ponds and mud pools for the big cats to soak in, and trees, bamboo and climbing structures for shade and to stimulate natural behaviors like stalking and playing.
On February 9, the WFFT team began the rescue operation by moving the weakest tiger, a 12-year-old female named Pinthongta who is struggling to walk, to her new home by air-conditioned wild animal ambulance. The team is now awaiting permits to retrieve the remaining 10 tigers and two bears.
“It might be a bit of a culture shock for some of them, especially the older ones who don’t know better than to be confined in a tiny cage and chained up for a few hours a day,” Wiek said.
The bears, two adult females, will live in an enclosure about six times the size of their current home at Phuket Zoo.
A better way forward
While the WFFT has long campaigned against the mistreatment of animals in Thai zoos, Wiek said he does not see the closure of Phuket Zoo and the rescue of tigers and bears as a significant step forward. He said if it weren’t for the pandemic, the zoo would probably still be in operation and the animals would still be suffering.
“Unfortunately, after the pandemic, when Thailand starts to receive tourists again, we will probably still have to campaign against places like this, because not much has changed,” he said.
A major barrier to change is the continued demand for wildlife encounters. Ironically, when the WFFT team traveled to Phuket in February to prepare for Pinthongta’s rescue, they encountered a group of tourists who immediately asked for advice on where to get a good tiger selfie.
“[Some tourists] don’t see a problem with [animal welfare] problems,” Wiek said. “So I’m afraid that once the pandemic is over, some places will remain closed forever, but others will reappear.”
Still, Wiek said he hopes the historic rescue of tigers and bears will demonstrate a new way of thinking for zoo owners and Thai policymakers.
“It could be an opportunity for Thailand to show they can do better,” Wiek said. This rescue “could have a snowball effect, with other zoos and facilities moving in the same direction to improve the lives of their animals.
“Who knows,” he added, “it might turn into something even bigger.”
Banner image: Pinthongta, a 12-year-old female tiger, was the first WFFT animal rescued from Phuket Zoo in February 2022. She was very weak and could barely walk. Image courtesy of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this message. If you want to post a public comment, you can do so at the bottom of the page.